Black and white photo of Gothic Hotel in Gothic Colorado, shadowed by a large mountain.

Lost Highways

American Gothic

Season 5, Episode 3

In 1881, white residents in the mining town of Gothic, Colorado lynched a Chinese man. Or did they? As the latest episode of Lost Highways investigates this reported act of anti-Chinese racial violence from Colorado’s past, we consider what it means to belong in the places we call home, and how such acts of violence continue to echo into the present—whether it actually happened or not. 

Header Image: Gothic Hotel in Gothic, Colorado, 1885. History Colorado PH.PROP.2922

Guests: billy barr, Asia Bright, Dr. Annie Gilbert Coleman, Amy Iler, Dr. Stephen Leonard Tony Aiden Vo, Dr. William Wei, Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, Dr. Benjamin Wong Blonder.


American Gothic

Lost Highways from History Colorado is made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor. And, by the Sturm Family Foundation, proud supporters of the humanities and the power of story-telling for more than twenty years. 

[soundscape: mountains, breeze, birds, cows]

BLAKE: I’m staring at a cow.

NOEL: This is Blake Pfeil, a multidisciplinary artist born and raised in Colorado. He’s also the producer of a really great immersive audio podcast called All-American Ruins, where he explores forsaken spaces like ghost towns and abandoned theme parks across the United States. He listens to these places, and makes soundscapes from what he hears. We’re excited to be working with him on a couple of episodes of Lost Highways this season. But, back to the cow.

BLAKE: Actually-- maybe the cow is staring at me?  In fact, there are a bunch of cows, standing in the middle of a slim gravel road, which winds around autumnal aspen trees, in the shadows of the Elk Mountain Range of the Rockies, and overlooks a grandiose yellow valley, where the East River flows down through Crested Butte, all the way to Almont, where it collides with the Taylor River to form the Gunnison River.

The soundscape that we’re currently immersed in is from October 3rd, during my visit to Gunnison County. I had such an invigorating, transformative experience that month, driving all over the state for twelve days, collecting interview tape for this episode. The experience made me realize how much I love my home state-- and how much I didn’t know about it.

NOEL: So tell us where we are right now. 

BLAKE: This is Gothic, Colorado, which is the home of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, or RMBL for short. According to their website, they’re an internationally renowned center for scientific research and education, quote, “Home to one of the largest annual migrations of field biologists.”

NOEL: And what does that mean?

BLAKE: Essentially, RMBL provides a playground, of sorts, to all kinds of scientists, namely biologists, so they can learn more about the planet and share that information with the rest of us. They also note that they, quote, “focus on the importance of preserving and providing access to historical data about the local ecosystems.”

NOEL:  And why’d you come here?

BLAKE: I came to hear not just Gothic, but also to listen to the story of one of the scientists who works at RMBL.

BEN WONG BLONDER: My name is Benjamin Wong Blonder.

BLAKE: Ben is an ecologist, and his personal story is at the heart of a much bigger story about the alleged lynching of a Chinese-American man in Gothic, in 1881.

BEN WONG BLONDER: I think, whether it happened or not… it sent a message to any people considering coming there that, perhaps if they were Chinese, they would be very unwelcome.  I think it was a very powerful and effective message.


NOEL: From History Colorado Studios, this is Lost Highways: Dispatches from the Shadows of the Rocky Mountains. I’m Noel Black.

BLAKE: And I’m Blake Pfeil. On this episode, we’ll investigate the history of violence toward Chinese-American and other non-white communities in Colorado’s scenic mountain towns and outdoor playgrounds.

NOEL: We’ll also explore what happens when one’s sense of belonging to a community is suddenly disrupted by history, and how we reconcile received history with our identities when we learn unsettling new facts about the past. We’ll also look at how these anti-Chinese sentiments in Gothic echo in the present, with increased violence toward Asian communities that occurred during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

BLAKE: Finally, we’ll examine the ways in which the history of colonization and the marketing of whiteness in the Rocky Mountains have excluded many communities, including its Indigenous inhabitants. 

NOEL: Alright Blake, take it away. 

[fade out “LOST HIGHWAYS” theme]

BLAKE: To get to Gothic, you travel southwest of Denver for four and a half hours, past the Collegiate Range, over Monarch Pass, through Gunnison, and deep into central Colorado. Here’s Ben Blonder to take it from there.

[music fade in: “The Summit” - Tony Aiden Vo]

BEN WONG BLONDER: So the approach to Gothic comes through Crested Butte and Mount Crested Butte, which are small towns that now have a lot of tourism, especially winter tourism, skiing, summer tourism, mountain biking, and once you press past these small towns which are at the head of the valley, you end up on the Gothic road, which winds for three or four miles towards the town of Gothic and goes above 9,000 feet to get there.

BEN WONG BLONDER: It's a dirt road that winds back and forth through a number of different aspen groves. So you feel like you're almost passing through a tunnel of trees that blow in the wind and turn to a beautiful yellow if you happen to be there in the autumn. And after you make it through several turns, you eventually get a view of one of the rivers that drains some of the higher valleys. And then finally, the end of the valley opens up, and you're greeted by several different peaks, of which Gothic Mountain is one.

BLAKE: Gothic is overwhelmingly beautiful. I grew up in Colorado Springs, so it’s not like I’m not used to the mountains, but this is different because Gothic is right up on you. The face of Gothic Mountain seems to drop right down into the edge of town, like a curtain on a stage. 

BEN WONG BLONDER: And after having seen these views, you drop down, you cross the river and you eventually come into the town side of Gothic, which today is a collection of perhaps thirty different cabins and small buildings, and in the last five or six, maybe five or ten years, a larger collection of research buildings as well. It looks, in some ways, like it’s straight out of the silver mining days, and in other ways it looks much more modern with a lot of solar panels and automobiles and research buildings. But one can almost imagine it in a very different era.


BEN WONG BLONDER: Gothic was a field station founded by white scientists and of course, a lot of the ecological world and the world of environmental scientists is, historically, primarily white as well. So it's not very surprising that that is also a primarily white community today.


BLAKE: But it wasn’t always that way.

[START: music cue - “A Hundred Hands”]

I should probably mention here that I’m a musical theatre nerd at heart. I’ve learned many a flowery version of historical stories from musical theatre, and it dawned on me as I arrived in Gothic that what little I know about Chinese-American history came from The Golden Spike, a musical written by Don Nguyen and The Lobbyists, including my friend Tony Aiden-Vo, about the heavy Chinese-American involvement in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. It’s still in development, but here’s an excerpt from one of the early drafts of the show:


[fade down music]

TONY AIDEN-VO: I think I first learned about Chinese-Americans and the discrimination that they faced on the railroad through the movie -- oh, what was that Jackie Chan movie? -- “Shanghai Noon.” You know, that movie came out, and I was like, “What? Oh, my.” Like, I just had-- I had no idea.

BLAKE: This is Tony. He’s originally from Boulder, a first-generation Vietnamese-American, and founding member of the folk theatre ensemble The Lobbyists. He also composed most of the music in this episode.

TONY AIDEN-VO: It's a shame that, at that age, I learned about Chinese-American history through this Hollywood action movie.

BLAKE: While the Transcontinental Railroad wasn’t what brought Chinese-Americans to Gunnison County or Gothic specifically, it’s the piece of this very complicated history that most people have probably heard of, so I figured it might be a good place to start. After the railroad was completed, Chinese and Chinese-Americans migrated for work throughout the West.

TONY AIDEN-VO: The birth of this project, “The Golden Spike,” came about right after Donald Trump got elected President. At that time we were asking, “What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to-- belong here?” And inevitably we started thinking about the railroad as this mythic kind of thing that exists in our country's history. And, of course, as you start digging deeper into America's history, you start learning all the wildly complicated new things that went into it. Even as an Asian-American, I learned about the railroad in school, but I didn't know anything about the Chinese Exclusion Act.


BLAKE: Like Tony, I had barely heard about the Chinese Exclusion Act. So I called Dr. William Wei. You might remember him from previous Lost Highways episodes. He’s an expert on Chinese-American history, like the go-to guy, especially as it pertains to Colorado.

WILLIAM WEI: The Chinese Exclusion Act – which was passed in May 1882 and signed by President Chester Arthur – had a tremendous impact on the Chinese in America, but also had a tremendous impact on our immigration system as well. It certainly had an impact on the Chinese because it, in effect, kept practically all Chinese from entering the country, even though it designated Chinese laborers.

BLAKE: The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first notable law that placed restrictions on immigration, putting a ten-year ban on Chinese laborers coming into the country. It expired in 1892, only to be extended as the Geary Act, which was made permanent in 1902, and required all Chinese residents to register for a certificate of residence –or, get deported.

WILLIAM WEI: It was the first time they put a national restriction on who could come into the country.  And ever since then we've had restrictive immigration. And this would be, of course, you know, problematic in terms of who could come into the country and who could not. It set, in effect, a precedent, an unfortunate precedent.

BLAKE: The Geary Act remained in place for more than half a century, until World War II, when the Allied Nations unified, China among them, and by 1943, the ban had been lifted. But the scars–and the culture of xenophobia it helped create – lingered.

WILLIAM WEI: The Chinese, of course, have the unfortunate distinction of being singled out as the ethnic group to be named specifically in national legislation, to be excluded from the country. As you also know, in recent times, President Trump tried to do that as well with his Muslim ban, to exclude Muslims or people from certain Muslim countries. It's all part of the same problem of excluding people from a land that until then was considered open to all kinds of folks.

BLAKE: Learning about this kind of historical discrimination is shocking, even now, says Tony. 

TONY AIDEN-VO: It’s one of the most discriminatory laws that was ever passed in our country, to just outright ban one race of people. As an Asian-American creative learning about the history of our country in this way, it was still very jarring to me, like, of course, I’m not surprised, but I am surprised. Like, I just-- you know, what, it happened almost 150 years ago, and it still feels so fresh?


[Music fade out]

BLAKE: For Dr. Benjamin Wong Blonder, learning about this kind of discrimination that the Chinese immigrants experienced in America changed his life, formatively. But up until he started spending his summers in Gothic, he was so largely unaware of his own history.

BEN WONG BLONDER: I grew up out on the East Coast, I come from a mixed family. My dad is Jewish, born in the United States. My mom is Chinese-American, born in the United States and her family, her parents came over to the U.S. from China.

BLAKE: Ben grew up in a family that was immersed in science, at least by trade, and he counts that as his initial introduction to a scientific world.

BEN WONG BLONDER: I came from a family that I think had quite a lot of interest in science. My dad worked as a researcher for a little bit of time before moving to work for AT&T’s Bell Laboratories, where he did a lot of engineering. And then my mom originally had a job when she left home working as a microscopy technician and actually worked for the Army for a little while. And so I had a lot of that sort of perspective growing up.

BLAKE: At the time, Ben never imagined that he'd ever find himself in a place like Gothic.

BEN WONG BLONDER: I think I was lucky to get a lot of exposure to nice places, but I wouldn't say I had a lot of chances to be outdoors. And I don't think from what I've heard from my parents that I actually liked being outdoors very much, when I was a kid, either. I didn't come from a family where we would go camping or go outdoors a lot, and I don't think I would have enjoyed it when I was little. I remember one school trip when I was in the ninth grade that I had a particularly bad experience on, and similarly a very bad biology high school class experience.

BLAKE: In fact, Ben’s interest in science -- and the outdoors as it relates to science -- waned, all the way into undergraduate school at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. And even then, his interest in ecology was a slow burn.

BEN WONG BLONDER: When I was an undergraduate student, I made some friends who enjoyed going hiking and spending time outdoors, and it was sort of a revelation to me that one could spend time in places like this.


BLAKE: Ben took an ecology class on a whim, and spent a lot of time taking measurements in the forest. It transformed his whole perspective on the outdoors, in a really meaningful way. 

BEN WONG BLONDER: I never sort of thought about the natural world as something that came in other than grass and tree and concrete before then. That was kind of the first hint I think I had that I should do something different and consider that as a focus for myself.

BLAKE: Even then, when Ben graduated from Swarthmore in 2008 with a B.A. in Physics, he didn't see himself working in the natural world. But things quickly changed.

BEN WONG BLONDER: After I finished up school, it became clear to me that I didn't want to be doing what I was doing, and I ended up getting a temporary job with the Forest Service, in partnership with the university and spent a summer counting logs and counting fish out in Oregon, had a great time and really fell in love with ecology and with forests and plants and mountains. And that sort of sent me on a path towards eventually doing a PhD. in Ecology.

BLAKE: So he packed up his life in Idaho and moved to a completely different kind of ecological environment: the University of Arizona.

BEN WONG BLONDER: I moved on to Tucson for that and spent five years living in the desert.


BLAKE: After finishing his PhD., Ben got an invitation to help a friend move to Colorado. He’d never been.

BEN WONG BLONDER: We drove from Arizona up to Colorado right at the peak of fall colors with all the aspen trees turning yellow. We climbed this mountain, and we stayed in a little cabin. I remember just thinking it was absolutely beautiful and the sort of place that I would like to know more about and go back and work in. And that place was the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, Gothic, Colorado.

BLAKE: At first, life at the lab, aka the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, was almost magical. And Ben began to think a lot about the environment that he was studying.

BEN WONG BLONDER: I think I got a bigger interest in the broader role of humans and shaping and being shaped by these natural systems. But at the beginning it was really almost an aesthetic sort of interest and sort of understanding the fundamentals and the beauty of everything that came together.

BLAKE (tape): It is so stinkin’ gorgeous out.

BLAKE: So, that’s me, on my way to Gothic, reflecting on how beautiful my home state is, and how I don’t know what this episode is going to be.

BLAKE (tape):  I am surrounded by trees, and I have to wonder, what, what did this all look like, back in the day, you know, before settlers, colonizers came through, really for a means of extraction. The gold rush, gold mining…

BLAKE: It’s kinda funny to hear how naive I sound back then. It was difficult to imagine that, in a place so beautiful, anything sinister or deliberately cruel could happen.

BLAKE: To better understand Ben’s experience, I needed to know more about the history of Gothic. And in order to do that, I’d like to introduce you to billy barr, a curious, self-appointed tour guide, historian, and local legend. His name is all over town. He’s even the namesake of the local hotel bar. He lives just northwest of town, on the side of Gothic Mountain in a house that he built himself.

BILLY BARR: In 1980, I bought some land in Gothic right at the furthest boundary. And that's where I've been since then.

BLAKE: Gothic is beautiful, yes. But on top of its already dark past, the founding of RMBL had its own darkness to it, says Billy. 

BILLY BARR: In 1927, John Johnson looked at some land for a field station up Taylor River and called it the Rocky Mountain Biological Station.

BLAKE: Dr. Johnson was a professor at Colorado Normal College, what we now know as Western Colorado University in Gunnison. Colorado Normal College in the 1920s was far from a “liberal arts education.” 

BILLY BARR: Back in the 1920s, it was heavily run by the Ku Klux Klan, and they gave him an ultimatum: to follow them or get booted, and he wouldn't do it. So he got this land, which was away from Gunnison, and got other biologists throughout the country to chip in together and buy, for the most part, the townsite, and over the following decades, they slowly bought all the inholding, but he left, had to go back to Pennsylvania to teach because he wouldn’t bow down to the Klan.

BLAKE: Long before John Johnson got to Gothic and established RMBL, the Tabeguache Ute tribe had occupied the Gunnison Valley. But by the late 1800s, gold and other precious metals had been discovered throughout southwest Colorado. 

As larger mining corporations began to arrive, the remaining Ute tribe members who hadn’t been pushed out by violence or disease were forcibly removed by the Federal government to Utah’s Uintah-Ouray Reservation in 1881.

BLAKE: Visiting Gothic, it’s hard to believe that there was such a diversity of immigrants. Gothic, Crested Butte, Gunnison County today, they’re all incredibly white. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of July 2023, over 93% white. This wasn’t lost on Dr. Blonder when he first arrived. But it wasn’t until 2018– his fifth summer there– that he began to uncover Gothic’s past. 

BEN WONG BLONDER: I had just been to an event for scientists and for donors, and the field station director was holding a big old-looking book, and mentioned that some of the history of a few of the nearby mines was described in that book. I had a big curiosity about some of that mining history, and a few days later asked to borrow that book. 

BLAKE: The book was a history of Gothic called A City of Silver Wires. A student named Carl Haas had written it as his graduate thesis and published it in 1974. 

BEN WONG BLONDER: And I took it home with me and, over the course of a couple cold nights sitting in an old mining cabin, I read the whole thing. And when I got about halfway through, I ran into this reference in passing to this lynching of a Chinese person in Gothic, which occupies a paragraph or two, maybe, in the book, at most.

BLAKE The paragraph referenced a clipping from “The Elk Mountain Pilot” on March 18th, 1881, that seemed to detail an actual lynching, from a newspaper distributed to the white mining community there. It's an account of the apparent lynching of a Chinese laborer in that town. It's a story that I think is written primarily to reinforce the narratives and the power dynamics of the community as it is. A note from the people who did something to someone less powerful, written to the other powerful people indicating that they did it, they were proud of it, and they got away with it. 

BEN WONG BLONDER: And I stopped, full stop, when I saw it. I had never really thought there was any Chinese history in Gothic. When I saw that reference, I felt a little bit like the walled garden that I had constructed in my mind was beginning to come down a little bit more. And over the next few weeks, I felt like I couldn't let that story go.

BLAKE: As a warning to folks who are sensitive to violence or racist language, what Ben is about to read-- a passage from “The Elk Mountain Pilot,” published on March 19, 1881-- may be difficult to hear.

BEN WONG BLONDER: “The mining towns of Colorado, as a general thing, are averse to John Chinaman and never allow him in the wealth producing districts when they can possibly avoid it. They look upon him as an enemy to the laborer and a bane upon society. Not until a short time ago has the Elk Mountains been the recipient of a visit from the almond-eyed celestial. He came to Gothic under protest of the citizens and opened a "washee" house. As is usual, his cheap rates proved a serious detriment to the old-time washer women of the town and caused them to become very indignant. An anti-Chinese organization was formed and the pig-tailed man ordered to leave the town instanter--”

BLAKE: “Instanter” means “immediately,” by the way.

BEN WONG BLONDER: “This the Chinaman refused to do, and defied the organization to drive him out. Saturday afternoon, about 4 o'clock, the organization appeared at John's house and once more requested him to “git.” But John was still imperturbable and informed the committee that he was there for the season. Seeing that argument was useless, the organization took the Chinaman out and hung him to the nearest tree.”

[Music: low drone]

BEN WONG BLONDER: I can in some ways imagine what that scene might have been imagined to look like, in that moment, and while I certainly hope something similar would not happen today, one can certainly imagine some of the same group behavior occurring in a place like that and the living conditions and the places that might have existed then, and to some extent, still exist today. So it is uncomfortable to read it. A lot of the language in that text is not language, I think, you’d see anybody use today, and reading from the historical record, I, I-- I still feel a little bit uncomfortable that those words of that newspaper are-- somehow found them-- into my mouth today. But I think even still, it's important to recognize those voices in that situation and in the present moment. It's remarkably close to the present.

[Music: fade out]

BLAKE: Other newspapers, like the nearby “Elk Mountain Bonanza” and “Gunnison News,” determined that the hanging wasn’t of a real man at all, but rather, an effigy, a crudely made model of a Chinese man, fashioned out of straw. But there’s no way to know for sure. And the violence of the act, whether real or symbolic, was undeniable.

BEN WONG BLONDER: I saw this mention of a lynching, and from there, I think I felt a sort of unavoidable call to understand more about what that story meant and how it fit into some of these other stories of different people and their connection to this land. I think whether it happened or not, and my personal view is that it probably didn't, it sent a message. And it sent a message, on the one hand, to people in those communities that they were part of the in-group, and that staging an event like that, a fake lynching, was appropriate and reflected the values of their community. And on the other hand, it also sent a message to any people considering coming there that perhaps if they were Chinese, they would be very unwelcome to come. I think it was a very powerful and effective message.

BLAKE: Lynchings weren’t uncommon in Colorado during this time period, from the 1850s to the late 1910s. And the word “lynching” doesn’t necessarily mean “hanging.”

STEPHEN LEONARD: A lot of times people think lynchings just involve hangings because they've got, I guess, Western movie versions of lynchings in their minds or ideas that somehow they picked up.

BLAKE: This is Stephen Leonard, a history professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver and author of the book Lynching in Colorado: 1859 to 1919. You might remember him from the Lost Highways episode, “A Lynching in Limon.” 

STEPHEN LEONARD: Generally, scholars have taken the view that lynching occurs when a group acting on the pretext of service to justice, tradition, or white supremacy, for example, kills another person without due process of law, such as a proper jury trial before an official court.
But it doesn't matter how a person is unjustly killed, if they're shot, and many were shot, many were hanged, some were burned at the stake, and some were beaten to death, and other means were used to lynch people, so it's not the method of killing, it's just the fact of an unjust killing done by a group.

BLAKE: I had the misconception that lynchings during this time period, across the country, were committed by white people towards other racial populations.  But that wasn’t true for the American West.

STEPHEN LEONARD: By far, the large majority of Southern lynchings were lynchings of Black people. In the West, that wasn't the case to the same degree. In some instances, Blacks were lynched in the West, but in general, at least in part because the Black population in the West was considerably smaller than in the South, the normal situation in the West was that it was white people lynching other white people, or in many cases, lynching Hispanic people, especially in Texas and California, but also in Colorado.

BLAKE: All in all, it’s understood that, in the State of Colorado, there were 175 reported lynchings between 1859 and 1919: 21 people who were Latino or had Latino surnames, seven Italians, two Black men, and two Chinese men, including Look Young. Regardless of who was lynched, it was always meant to send a message. And more than a century later, Ben Blonder took that message very personally. 

BEN WONG BLONDER: It was unnerving and it was surprising. And at that point in my own life, I think my own identity as a Chinese-American person was largely unexplored and somewhat unpacked. I knew a lot of the history of the broad immigration of people from China to the United States, and the reasons that occurred. I knew some of the history of the settlement of the American West. I knew many of these things, but I hadn't really taken them from these abstract concepts and thought, “How do they really apply to me in particular?”

BLAKE: Ben says the fact that he’s always fit in with the scientific community and that being involved with organizations like RMBL had allowed him to not think about racial violence experienced by his ancestors and other minority groups.

BEN WONG BLONDER: I felt very lucky and privileged to have been able to not think about these things for as long as I did. So I think the story in particular was a nudge, maybe a big nudge, towards a different way of approaching some of these questions.

BLAKE: Many mining towns of the late 19th century and the American West saw a settlement of these places by white settlers, doing the work that they hoped would make them wealthy. That work, of course, requires additional labor as well. 

BEN WONG BLONDER: All of the support services it takes to have a mine and to extract the minerals from it, and many of these other jobs were ones that white people were not willing to do, leaving a labor gap for others, like Chinese laborers, to come in. So I think there hypothetically was a Chinese person or people doing some of this low-status labor, laundry work. And there was maybe a fear that this person was beginning to get too big for their size and beginning to maybe come up in the world and maybe think about doing some mining themselves or getting some capital and becoming someone who was not simply someone who’s being looked down on, doing the work no one else wanted to do, but someone more integrated. And I think this effort to either lynch them or indicate that they could or would if that person had not existed, was a story and a strong message to the community that Chinese people ought to know their place and ought to stay in that place and not go further than that.

BLAKE: Ben’s new awareness of the struggles faced by Chinese immigrants in the early American West also made him more acutely aware of the ways Utes and other American Indians were displaced from the land where the town of Gothic sits. 

BEN WONG BLONDER: I also thought that there was an insufficient linkage between those stories and the stories of Native Americans who were and are in that region as well, seeing not only the exclusion and oppression of the Chinese laborers, but also the Native people that were in that area before the mining town of Gothic ever came to be.

BLAKE: For Dr. Blonder, it’s not that these histories are hidden, necessarily, but that we collectively choose to ignore them because they raise uncomfortable questions about who we are as Americans. 

BEN WONG BLONDER: It's a story that I think deeply challenges the narrative that's often told in these mining towns of the white settlers coming to take minerals out and build futures for themselves. And I think what this story does is it says that's true-- and it's also true that that required many other stories to exist, and that many of these other stories came with quite a lot of pain and exclusion and violence.

BLAKE: It took Ben a lot of time and reflection to fully absorb the way this history was also his history, and that it was still very much alive in Gothic. 
BEN WONG BLONDER: I had understood that there were certainly Chinese laborers out in the American West through the California Gold Rush, the railroad, various other trades that were less of interest or less compelling to the white community, and of course, also a small number of Black people after the Civil War coming out. But I hadn't really put the history together with the particular place I'd been working in for all of these different summers. And I suppose it was something of a surprise, like a very eye-opening experience, to imagine, “Were there really Chinese people here?” I hadn't thought of that at all.

[Short music transition]

BLAKE: In William Wei’s book, Asians in Colorado: History of Persecution and Perseverance in the Centennial State, there’s a quote by Du Fu right at the beginning of the book. “A white bird vanishes in the vast expanse, 10,000 miles off. Can you call it back?”

WILLIAM WEI: The quote was intended to symbolize the Chinese diaspora. The Chinese, like other folks as a result of certain push-pull factors, have left their country to go elsewhere.

BLAKE: Wei says widespread poverty and social instability in China drove many Chinese immigrants to the U.S. in search of a better life.

WILLIAM WEI: The California Gold Rush attracted people from all over the world as well as those on the East Coast. And then subsequently, there was a chronic demand for laborers in the American West.

BLAKE: At first, most traveled to California for the Gold Rush of 1849. But then, gold was found around Denver and the nearby foothills in 1859.

WILLIAM WEI: They went to Colorado because there was work to be had, and the Chinese, along with others, went there to find gainful employment so that they could support their family, support themselves and their families in China.

BLAKE: I asked Dr. Wei why even Asian-Americans like Ben, or my friend Tony, know so little about the history of Chinese-Americans in the United States – why, outside their work on the railroads, there’s little to no mention of them in textbooks. 

WILLIAM WEI: I suspect part of it has to do with the fact that it was simply unknown. It was unknown, and it was also something that, well, in retrospect would prove to be embarrassing. Because what you have to understand about the Asians, if you will, in the interior American West, is that the history was tantamount to experiencing ethnic cleansing.

[start music, low drone]

BLAKE: To note, Dr. Wei’s use of the phrase “ethnic cleansing” here often took the form of anti-Chinese riots. As just one example of the kinds of things I didn’t learn in school: There’s a fascinating, but disturbing, recent article in History Colorado’s “Colorado Magazine” about the “Bloody Riot of 1880,” as it was nicknamed by the press at the time. The article, penned by Noah Allyn, discusses the growth of anti-Chinese sentiments in Colorado during the 1870s, including journalist-led, deeply bigoted conspiracy theories that all Chinese people were descendants of the Mongol Empire, who were preparing to take over the United States. 

According to Allyn, Denver’s Chinatown became synonymous, in Euro-American communities, with all the problems facing society: “Gambling! Prostitution! Opium!”, despite there being no evidence that any of this was any truer for Chinese communities as it was for any given white community. As such, Chinatown became a scapegoat, which led to a violent mob that formed on October 31, 1880, when hundreds of Chinese people were brutally attacked, a majority of Chinese properties looted and destroyed, and a Chinese man named Look Young, who we mentioned earlier, was lynched.

WILLIAM WEI: There were over 200, if you will, Chinese communities in the Interior West. And because of the ethnic cleansing, they were basically destroyed, and the people were driven out. And that would include the Chinatown in Denver. And that's not something that people would necessarily want to recall fondly.

BLAKE: But anti-Asian sentiment isn’t just something of the distant past. In 2020, during the beginning phases of the Covid-19 pandemic, hate crimes committed against Asian-Americans shot up from 149% from the previous year.

WILLIAM WEI: Many of the problems that were associated with the Asians, you know, of the past, is now been visited upon the Asian-Americans in the present. And that's so obviously quite worrisome.

BLAKE: I asked Dr. Wei about his feelings regarding the rise in anti-Asian hate during this time. 

WILLIAM WEI: What you have to understand is, some things have not changed. We continue to be nativist in the sense that we’re still anti-foreign, you know, which translates into anti-immigrant. But racism unfortunately persists, although we are trying to address it as best we can.

BLAKE: In 2012, in a rarely-seen move, the House of Representatives formally apologized for the Chinese Exclusion Act, though it didn’t really amount to anything. And in 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act into law. After its passing, Senators Mazie Hirono and Tammy Duckworth applauded the adoption of the bill. You’ll hear them refer to the AAPI community, which is shorthand for Asian-American Pacific Islander.

SEN. MAZIE HIRONO: I cannot tell you how important this bill is to the AAPI community who often has felt very invisible in our country, always seen as foreign, always seen as the other. And for them to experience a kind of hatred against them, through no provocation on their part, to be the victims of unprovoked, just random assaults on them as they are minding their own business in the subways, grocery stores, takeout restaurants, on the street …

SEN. TAMMY DUCKWORTH: And this bill tells the AAPI community, who are seen as the other, who are often asked, “Where are you from, really?” This tells the AAPI community we see you, and we will stand with you, and we will protect you.

BLAKE: But these are just words. And they have a strategy attached to them, reform strategy. They list the steps, and they might even follow them. But it’s so difficult to quantify that kind of change, that kind of structural, cultural evolution in a day and age where everything is sensationalized, and getting to the factual truth of the matter can be challenging. It’s also difficult to see change happen overnight, says William Wei. 

WILLIAM WEI: And if you look at the overspan of history, there has been marked improvement. It's been slow, and it's been, you know, well, not always effective, but at least we've tried to recognize the problem and try to deal with it. We live in a country where we do not visit the sins of the fathers, to use that term. We don't do that. Not as a habit, we don't visit the sins of the past on their descendants.

BLAKE: On July 15, 2023, Benjamin Wong Blonder and a group of fellow scientists in his community decided it was time to revisit those sins and do something about them. Along with a full committee, he delivered a letter addressed to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory’s board and staff. The beginning of the letter asks RMBL to see their work from an Indigenous perspective, and to recognize themselves and their work as colonial settlers. 

AMY ILER: “Settlers appropriate Indigenous lands as their own, thus redefining the relationship to land solely as a function of property.”

BLAKE: Here’s Amy Iler, one of the Trustees of RMBL, and the chair of the Board’s diversity committee, reading a selection of the letter.

The environmental implications associated with the colonization and control of Indigenous lands by settlers led to the development of Western conservation practices. In the Western model of conservation, establishment of public national parks contributed to the displacement of Indigenous peoples and the reallocation of land to settler control. Private conservation attempts, such as those led by natural history organizations, are predominantly staffed by settler individuals and follow the Western worldview of nature as a resource for human benefit. The Western approach to conservation is contingent upon preserving and protecting wilderness from humans and thus antithetical to Indigenous epistemologies.

BLAKE: By epistemologies, Ben and the committee behind the letter are referring to the Indigenous way of knowing and understanding the world and the land. And for the Ute, who are native to the land on which RMBL sits, preserving and protecting the land go hand-in-hand with inhabiting and being in relationship to it as stewards who also use and benefit from it. When the Ute were forced onto reservations in the late-1800s, the Brunot Agreement of 1874 was supposed to have granted them ongoing access to their traditional hunting, gathering, and fishing lands throughout western Colorado. Though the treaty is, legally, still in effect, the Ute have struggled for generations to maintain that access. Here’s Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk of the Ute Mountain Tribe from our Season 3 episode about Alfred Packer:  

REGINA LOPEZ-WHITESKUNK:  But you know, and the non, non-native don't understand the amount of Indigenous and Aboriginal hunting and fishing areas that we lost access to. So when we lose access to land, we lose connection with those areas. We lose a part of our ability to maintain our culture and traditions out of the sake of not engaging in those activities as we may have, you know, many generations ago. So we are not in those areas, hence we don't have that relationship with that part of our former homelands.

[Music fade out - soundscape]

BLAKE: Ben’s letter doesn’t ask Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory to grant such access, but to fully acknowledge that history. As it stands, the ecological research organization traces its origins no further than Gothic’s existence as a former mining town. Beyond that, Ben and the others who signed the letter ask the organization to do more outreach and cooperation with the Ute, to provide stipends for Indigenous researchers to work there, and to consider co-management of the land.

AMY ILER: Some of the items pertaining to co-management of the land, I think are much more complicated and will require a lot of conversation as a community. But I think that after we do some more education, we'll be in a much better position to have those conversations.
One really good thing about the letter is that it motivated a more strategic approach on anti-colonialism and focusing on Indigenous communities, and it was just adopted by the board last week. So I do feel hopeful that we're in a good position to move forward and do so together.

BEN WONG BLONDER: While I had an important role in writing the early drafts of that letter, it was really a letter written by a larger group of people, really written by a community within the broader community. The primary thing we were hoping for was a change in the topics being discussed in the public at that field station. I think a lot of the actions that had been taken or the ones that we saw that had not been taken were happening quietly. And I think what we really wanted to see was a recognition by leadership and throughout the community that some of these issues were important ones and worth discussing. I think, in writing that letter, we were not really sure what the right long-term direction would be, but it seemed clear that without open and honest and frank discussion about these topics, no long-term action could be obtained. We identified some actions in that letter that we hope to see, including more transparency, opportunities for funding, for education, for training and I’m personally optimistic that a lot of those are going to begin to occur.

BLAKE: While the efforts of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory are an important step in the direction of addressing historical injustices of Anglo-European colonization in Gothic, it will take far broader efforts and awareness to address the whiteness, and to the erasure of the diverse histories of the many different immigrants and inhabitants of small towns in the Rocky Mountains. 

ANNIE GILBERT COLEMAN:  Someone who wanted to go skiing in Aspen or Vail or Telluride could, by consuming the sport and going to the town and spending their money there, could participate in a culture of whiteness and wealth and celebrity really, no matter what their own ethnic or racial identity was. But it was available through the purchase of the right clothes, the right equipment, practicing that whole apres-ski culture. 

BLAKE: This is Dr. Annie Gilbert Coleman, who teaches the history of wilderness sports at Notre Dame. She’s the author of an article called “The Unbearable Whiteness of Skiing” in which she details the ways in which the ski industry was actively marketed as a refuge for white Anglo-Europeans after World War II. This culture, which arose in part from the American military’s 10th Mountain Division at Camp Hale outside of Leadville, didn’t begin with skiing.

ANNIE GILBERT COLEMAN: I would go back and say that has a lot to do with the idea of American wilderness and how that idea emerged from thinkers like Emerson and Thoreau and ideas associated with the American frontier, which are very sort of a white conquest narrative, very masculine, elite, middle class kind of experience that if you want to go into the real West, or be in the real wilderness, you're going to be on your own.

BLAKE: And that mythos, or ideology of “wilderness,” was formally codified by the Wilderness Act of 1964, which defines wilderness in part, as quote, “An area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation,” and “generally appears to have been affected primarily by forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable.”

ANNIE GILBERT COLEMAN: And so, the appropriation of land by the Federal government to become Forest Service, Park Service, Fish and Wildlife, BLM land, in order to be officially wilderness, it will fall under one of those management agencies, which means it's been colonized, really, or it’s organized, it's rationalized and managed by the U.S. Federal government. And so that reality also ostracizes Native people by ignoring their historical relationship to it and Native peoples’ relationship to places is… is cultural, it's community, it involves religion and physical practice. 

BLAKE: But it isn’t just Indigenous communities like the Ute who have been excluded from what we now often think of as wilderness. 

ASIA BRIGHT: I was hiking with my friends one time, for over five hours, and I noticed that we were the only Black people in the park, and I live in Baltimore, Maryland. The population-- it's like 90 percent Black, and I just, I couldn't believe it.

BLAKE: That’s Asia Bright, one of the co-founders of Black Girls Hike, a Baltimore-based organization that leads Black women on nature and outdoor adventures throughout the United States. Several similar organizations have popped up all over the country.

ASIA BRIGHT: I created this organization because I saw that there was a lack of representation in the outdoor world for black and brown women in particular. We do hiking. We also have yoga classes. We do outdoor activities, kayaking. We also have retreats. We do travel events, outside excursion type of things. It makes us feel just super grateful, to be allowed, today, super grateful for our ancestors, and just to be grateful to now being allowed to be in a space where we can reconnect with outdoors.

BLAKE: For Asia, it’s more than just representation, activities, and safety. Forming the group and being an extremely active hiker helps her feel connected to something bigger, something much more familial.

ASIA BRIGHT: My ancestors, they didn't have a choice, you know, like if time came to cross this river, whether or not they knew how to swim or not-- we're on an incline, the ladies are tired. I'm like, “Come on, friends. Like, Harriet Tubman didn't get tired, you know, this is just one little hill, we can make it, we’re only hiking two miles, so it just puts things into perspective.

[Transition Music]

BLAKE: Over the course of reporting and writing this story, what I have come to admire about folks like Ben, Asia, and Tony, among many other things, is their commitment to belonging, which is a powerful word.

BEN WONG BLONDER: I think it means that you can be all of yourself. You can feel powerful and you can feel connected to a place and to the other people in it. I think oftentimes we see spaces that are created for one sort of person in which they live their lives, they swim in the water, and don't notice the water. And other people are perhaps invited there, too. They're allowed to come in, they're included in that place. But when they come, they have to swim harder, they notice the water. And I think by powerful, what I mean is this feeling of being part of that water, of not noticing or taking effort to swim within it. When someone swims in the water and doesn't notice it they're not worried about drowning, they're not worried about getting pushed in, they're enjoying themselves.

[crossfade back to original Gothic soundscape]

BLAKE: I’m staring at a cow.

BEN WONG BLONDER: I think, in a lot of the marketing materials one sees for these outdoor-focused forest towns, we often have the idea of going to this outdoor playground and playing in the mountains and so on.

BLAKE: Or rather, the cow is staring at me.

BEN WONG BLONDER: I think for many scientists as well, they come, and they bring their families, they play in these places, and it's great. 

BLAKE: I’m in Gothic, Colorado, alone, and I turn away from the cow and peer up at the giant peak, towering over me.

BEN WONG BLONDER: The word “play” I think, though, inherently comes with this idea of childhood and innocence as well. And both of those words symbolize this idea that one is not responsible, one can move freely without needing to take up adult concerns.

BLAKE: And I’m fully aware that this mountain isn’t mine - though I’d love to climb up to the summit and feel like I’m on top of the world. But instead, I’m considering Ben’s definition of “belonging,” and specifically, how it relates to the word “play.”

BEN WONG BLONDER: We often abdicate our responsibility to some of these histories and can turn a blind eye to some of the things that have happened to them and things that maybe make it difficult for some people to play or even be invited to play in the first place. And in doing so, we erase this long and dark, violent history of these places.


NOEL: Lost Highways is a production of History Colorado and History Colorado Studios. It’s made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor. And by a founding grant from the Sturm Family Foundation, with particular thanks to Stephen Sturm and Emily Sturm.

 If you enjoyed this episode of Lost Highways and want to support it, please subscribe, rate us, and write us a review on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcast. Also: tell a friend and share one of your favorite episodes. 

You can find links to individual episodes at Many thanks to Blake Pfeil, who wrote and produced this episode. Special thanks to Susan Schulten, our History advisor; to Chief Creative Officer Jason Hanson; to Publications Director Sam Bock; to Ann Sneesby-Koch for her newspaper and periodical research; and to History Colorado’s editorial team Lori Bailey and Devin Flores. 

We’re also deeply thankful to Sharyn Zimmerman, our volunteer transcriber for this season. If you'd like to see a transcript of any of our episodes, either as a matter of accessibility or because you'd like to use Lost Highways in your classroom, you can find them at

Tony Aidan-Vo, By Lotus and The Merry Olivers composed the music for this episode, and our theme is by Conor Bourgal. Many thanks to our editorial team: Shaun Boyd, Eric Carpio, Terri Gentry, Chris Juergens, Aaron Marcus, and Ann Sneesby-Koch. And to our Advisory Group: Susan Schulten, Thomas Andrews, Tom Romero, and Cara DeGette. Finally, a huge thanks to the entire staff at History Colorado. And thanks for listening. I’m Noel Black.